Alarm Detection Systems turns 50: Founder says ‘Failure was not an option’

Last year, Alarm Detection Systems, Inc. founder and CEO Bob Bonifas traveled to the North Pole to say, “Merry Christmas.”

Being willing to go the ends of the earth to accomplish a goal is not unfamiliar to Bonifas, one of the world’s most traveled individuals. That trait is even more relevant this year as Alarm Detection Systems (ADS) celebrates 50 years in the security business that began in Aurora, Illinois.

ADS provides electronic security and fire safety services to businesses and residential customers. The company has more than 35,000 accounts throughout Northern Illinois, Southern Wisconsin and, most recently, Colorado.

And just as Bonifas talks matter-of-factly about visiting every country in the world, he says there is “no magic” to achieving 50 years in business, “just hard work.”

“It took ADS 10 years to do the first million in gross revenue,” Bonifas said. “It should have been faster. Having a college education would have helped, especially if I had studied electronics.”

But a diploma from Aurora’s Marmion Academy would have to suffice. “My father was a hardworking guy, and I inherited that gene,” Bonifas said. His father, who had a fourth-grade education, owned Art’s Bi-Lo Supermarket, which is one of the four buildings on the 25-acre campus where the Alarm Detection Systems’ Illinois headquarters is located on Church Road. The Illinois campus has one of two of the company’s redundant central monitoring stations as well as its locksmith shop, Security Master.

As he looks back on growing Alarm Detection Systems to a $50 million corporation, Bonifas said there are “always hard days when you are starting a business, but losing is not an option you give yourself.”

CFO Terry Olah began his tenure with ADS in 1975 as a Waubonsee Community College student. While searching a job bulletin board on campus, he noted an interesting opportunity with an alarm company. The flyer said, “Earn while you learn.”

“I knew nothing about alarms,” Olah said. “As far as I knew, people left their doors unlocked all the time.”

Little did he know that 43 years later, he would be an expert in the alarm systems field. Olah graduated from Aurora University (Aurora College at the time) with a degree in accounting.

“In a million years, I would never have expected this to be anything but a part-time job,” he said with a smile.

But the December before his graduation in February 1978, Bonifas asked Olah what he would be doing after college.

“Bob said he was looking to grow the business and needed an accounting person on board,” Olah said. “I could walk in and be the accountant, gain experience, and develop the job from the beginning.”

Olah accepted the offer. He and Bonifas (who was the only salesperson at the time) would meet weekly at about 6 p.m. on Fridays. “Those meetings occasionally would run past midnight,” Olah said.

That was before computers were commonplace in business. “Manual systems to computers – that was scary,” Olah said. “But part of the culture Bob has created is one of self-sufficiency. Whatever needs to be done, you have to figure it out and do it. We were a small business and couldn’t afford to hire experts.”

Adding layers of management started soon after Olah came on board. “Good managers were hired from the beginning, and many have been here for 25 or 30 years,” he said.

The story of Alarm Detection Systems is a great one, Olah said. “Very few start-up companies make it to this size and remain a family business. In our industry of 10,000 to 13,000 alarm companies, we are 21st in the nation. We are one of the biggest, with 35,000 customers and more than 300 employees.”

Among the employees are four of Bonifas’s five children. Ed and Dale Bonifas, Connie (Bonifas) Busby and Kim (Bonifas) Keating all hold executive positions in the company. Other family members who have come on board include his brother Gary, sister-in-law Debbie (Bob’s executive assistant), nephew Nick who is in-house counsel, and grandson Brandon Busby who is located in the Colorado office.

Family members joining the business has been key for ADS, Olah said.

“A lot of businesses don’t make it to the next generation. The four family members who came into the business were extremely driven. They had Bob’s work ethic. They were a dynamic, talented and driven group.”

Bonifas agreed that ADS is committed to family, customers and employees.

“Even as we have gotten bigger we still care for our customers,” he said. “From Day One, that has been one of the keys to our success. We are large enough to provide world class service but small enough to care.”

Olah described Bonifas as a “brilliant businessperson who takes care of both customers and employees.”

In 1974, the decision was made to open a central station. “Before that, ADS utilized an answering service,” Olah said. “For our size, it was an incredible decision to make.” The central station was UL certified in 1975.

Another key in the company’s growth was its involvement in industry associations. In 1979, Bonifas was elected to a two-year term as president of the Illinois Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, now the Illinois Electronic Security Association.

“We reached out beyond the little sphere of our business to regional and national associations to share ideas, issues and solutions,” Olah said.

When Bonifas was elected president of the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association in 1986 for a two-year term, it was a time of immense growth for the company, Olah said.

“When Bob took on the role of national president, he had to take about 50 trips a year. Up until then, Bob was running the company. When he began traveling, we stepped up and filled the roles that needed to be filled. We had all been around long enough that we knew what we should be doing. I look at that stretch as a time we matured as a company.”

Bonifas has held leadership roles for more than 40 years in virtually every industry organization.

Another of Bonifas’s endeavors was to grow the company through acquisitions. Alarm Detection Systems has purchased 65 competitors in the Chicago metro area and most recently purchased the largest independent family-owned company in Colorado, Safe Systems, Inc. All 80 employees were retained.

“A seller’s business is an extension of his life, like one of his kids,” Olah said. “He has to be ready (to sell) because he has poured his life into this. So, we want it to be good for him, his employees and his customers. We want him to tell his buddies we’re a good buyer in the industry.”

Another key to the success of not only ADS but dozens of other independent alarm systems companies in the U.S. and Canada was the founding three decades ago, by Bonifas and two industry colleagues, of Security Network of America.

“This was a group of independent companies that became shareholders in a private corporation,” Olah said. “It was formed so member companies could pool purchasing information and knowledge, and so they could compete with the big guys (like ADT or Tyco). We all learned from each other how to be better companies, how to take care of employees and be more profitable.”

The organization, now known as NetOne, is a network combining the “Best of the Best” independently owned security companies. Their customer base is comparable to the nation’s fourth-largest electronic security company with more than 775,000 customers.

“We help each other because it’s us against the big guys, if you will,” Bonifas said. “When Security Network of America was founded, a lot of companies were selling out to national companies like ADT. We knew they would pick us off one at a time.”

“The founding of NetOne speaks volumes of Bob’s personality and how he is always driven to do better,” Olah said.

Bonifas said when his family decided to get out of the grocery business, he needed to find work to support his wife and five children. He answered a Wall Street Journal ad for a Dictograph alarm system franchise. Applying his motto, “Failure is not an option,” he went into business and never looked back.

“Hard work, drive and energy are what it takes,” Bonifas said. “There are always hard days when you are starting a business but losing is not an option you give yourself.

Bonifas said he almost retired from the “Most Traveled People” club after he hit the first-place spot on the club’s list of 874 destinations. (He had traveled to 851 places on the list.)

But then, someone else claimed the top spot, and the travel bug bit him again. He currently is in second place on http://mosttraveledpeople.com/.

“I was 30 years old before I ever flew on a commercial airplane,” Bonifas said. That first flight was after he went into the security business and needed to fly to New Jersey on business. Now he has logged more than 6 million flight miles.

Bonifas also enjoyed skiing and scuba diving but had to give those up as he grew older.

“A man has to know his limitations,” Bonifas said. “But I still walk through an airport faster than any person alive.”